Several readers submitted questions about the best way to “cut the cord” and ditch their cable subscription while still getting most of the benefits of having a cable subscription.
This is a topic I’m personally passionate about. I believed in it so passionately that I joined Intel Media back in 2012 to help build an alternative to cable and satellite television offerings. At the time, there was no real viable solution for cutting the cord and still getting most of the same type of content available via cable providers. Four plus years later, a bunch of new options exist, though they all require some level of compromise.
The streaming TV landscape is constantly evolving, so it’s highly possible that this article will be out of date as soon as I write it. One additional challenge in making a recommendation for cutting the cord is the various incentive offers made by cable providers. If your cable provider is also your Internet service provider, there’s a good chance your Internet service bill will increase if you stop paying for cable.
I’m not an expert on the options available outside the United States, so I apologize in advance if you are reading this from another country. There are a couple of common questions anyone cutting the cord needs to consider.
The first question you need to answer when you think about cutting the cord is whether you care about live sports or not. If you don’t care about live sports, cutting the cord is far easier.
The second question to ask yourself is whether you care about seeing a show at the time it originally airs on television in your local market. For instance, if you need to watch Game of Thrones on Sunday night when it airs instead of waiting until sometime on Monday, your options are more limited, though not as much as the options for a sports fan.
A third exercise in determining which cord cutting solution works best is to make note of all the shows you care about and which networks they air on. Once you do this, it’s easier to see which services carry all the content you care about.
Note: If you care about less than 6 shows, it’s almost always going to be cheaper to simply pay for those 6 shows and get them all the day after they air. Getting an Apple TV or Amazon FireTV stick and paying for the ability to watch the full season the day after it airs via iTunes or Amazon Instant Video is far more cost effective than any of the monthly subscription options I talk about later.
Watching on an HDTV Screen
One common theme in the questions I’ve seen is around how to still get a viewing experience that looks similar to cable on your television.
While many smart TVs come with apps for a variety of the cord cutting services, I find the smart TV interfaces to be clunky at best. I strongly recommend one of the popular add-on hardware devices I mention here.
If you have a game console like an Xbox or PlayStation, you might not need additional hardware. That said, there are four primary device choices when it comes to picking a cord cutting solution.
Amazon Fire TV
Fire TV is available as either an HDMI stick or a slightly larger unit that streams 4k and can be expanded up to 200GB of storage. Amazon maintains its own catalog of movies and television shows for rental or purchase. If you have an Amazon Prime account, a bunch of movies and television shows are included along with a growing catalog of original programming. While Amazon hasn’t succeeded in finding their own House of Cards or Orange is the new Black yet, several of their originals are pretty compelling. FireTV also supports apps for every major network and integrates the ability to subscribe to HBO, Showtime, Starz, MLB and many other premium offerings. Netflix and Hulu are also supported. If you purchase a version with the voice remote, you get the same Alexa search functionality included in the Amazon Echo devices. You can use your phone as a remote by downloading an app.
Apple TV makes it easy to watch anything you purchase or rent from iTunes on the big screen. It also supports HBO, Showtime, MLB and many other options, along with Netflix and Hulu. The only notable services missing from Apple TV are Google Play and Amazon Instant Video. The Apple TV device is roughly $100 more than Chromecast or the FireTV Stick, but a majority of that price difference is due to having storage on the device. Siri works with Apple TV just like it does on the iPhone and iPad, which is far easier than typing individual letters out via the onscreen keyboard. Airplay support allows you to send videos you find on your phone over to your TV for viewing.
Here again, Google offers many subscription offerings all viewable via apps that run on Chromecast. The primary store for purchase and rental is Google Play, which Android users are already very familiar with. Chromecast comes in two versions at this point. The Ultra version supports 4k and HDR. Here again, Netflix and Hulu are supported. Your phone is probably the best option as a remote for either version of Chromecast. Anything on your phone that supports casting can automatically be sent to your TV for viewing when your phone is paired to your Chromecast.
At this point I probably sound a bit like a broken record in writing about each of these devices. They all share a common set of content options. Roku gives you access to both Google Play and Amazon Instant Video, but lacks access to iTunes content. In this way it’s probably the most comprehensive as a catalog of choices. Roku also does the best job of searching across all possible content catalogs and giving you a full view into the options you have for watching content. Roku also offers devices compatible with older TVs, so if you’ve still got a TV with no HDMI port, Roku can help make it more useful. Depending on which model of Roku device you choose, there’s a voice search built into the remote, 4k is supported and in some cases a headphone jack so you can watch TV without disturbing other people in the room.
Which device should you choose?
There’s no wrong choice in picking any of the options above. They all continue to invest in making their user experience better. Amazon, Google and Apple seem to be in an arms race to own the living room. If you’ve already made a substantial investment in videos from iTunes, Apple TV is the way to go because none of the other devices supports iTunes video playback at this point.
Subscription Streaming Services
While there are a number of other streaming services out there, the services I list here are the ones with bundles most similar to traditional cable offerings. Some channels, like HBO and Showtime let you subscribe directly and skip any of the services I list here, but if you are looking for something to replace most of your cable viewing, these are your best bets.
Trying to list all of the channels that come with each of these subscription offerings is a game of whack-a-mole because they vary depending on which package you choose and where you live. It’s better to make a list of the channels you want to watch and then compare that against what each service tells you they offer.
Each of the services I listed below offer some portion of their service offering on Android and iOS devices. I’ve noted which of the hardware devices I covered above are compatible with each service.
Note: All of the following services will work in your computer browser and to a varying degree on your Android or iOS devices. Depending on the content rights some content works on smaller device screen or in the case of NFL content, only on bigger screens when the service offers NFL at all.
Number of devices: Up to 4 simultaneous streams (with caveats)
Supported devices: Apple TV, Amazon FireTV, Roku, Google Chromecast, and some Android and iOS devices.
Premium Add-on Channels: HBO, Cinemax, Showtime, Starz
Sling offers three primary combinations of channels. They have an Orange Bundle with one set of channels. A Blue Bundle includes a different combination of channels. Then there’s the Orange + Blue option that combines them both. For either of the options, you can add additional clusters of channels in $5 or $10 monthly increments. If you want to watch on more than one device, you need the Blue Channel option at a minimum.
I would consider Sling to be the weakest of the four offerings I outline here because they have too many caveats and the price starts looking pretty expensive if you want more than the basics.
Number of Devices: Up to 5 simultaneous streams
Supported devices: Apple TV, Android TV, Amazon Fire TV, Roku, Google Chromecast, and some Android and iOS devices.
Premium Add-on Channels: HBO, Showtime (ala carte or bundled in top monthly tier)
You don’t need a PlayStation or be a gamer to subscribe to Vue. Sony offers packages from 45 to 90+ channels. Their most comprehensive package includes HBO and Showtime in the price. If you get any of the packages that include sports, you get regional sports networks for your area along with the national sports. The top tier won’t save you much money compared to a cable subscription, but it does a good job of replicating most of what people care about in a cable bundle.
Number of Devices: Up to 5 simultaneous streams
Supported devices: Apple TV, Amazon Fire TV, Google Chromecast, and some Android and iOS devices.
Premium Add-on Channels: HBO, Cinemax, Starz
DIRECTV NOW has a number of channel options. They are currently running a special offer at $25 per month including HBO if you are an AT&T Unlimited Plus subscriber. Regular subscriptions start with over 60 channels for $35 per month.
The two biggest negatives I’ve seen surrounding DIRECTV NOW relate to video quality and content availability.
Multiple colleagues from the content world indicate that their DIRECTV NOW service crashes frequently with prolonged watching. Maybe this could be viewed as a benefit as it might remind you to walk away from the TV and go do something else. Sports are not consistently available. In many cases, live sporting events are blacked out much like they are for other types of streaming services. This means DIRECTV NOW isn’t really a replacement for your cable provider if you care about sports.
Number of Devices: Up to 6 simultaneous streams
Supported devices: Google Chromecast, Android and iOS devices.
Premium Add-on Channels: Showtime
YouTube is the newest entrant into the world of cord cutting. They also seem to be the offering showing the most promise. Unlike DIRECTV NOW and Sling Television, YouTube TV seems to have sports viewing rights that mostly closely approximate traditional cable providers. As of this writing, I can’t actually subscribe to the YouTube TV service because they define geographic regions more narrowly (and likely more accurately) than some of the other solutions.
YouTube is offering Cloud DVR so you can time shift virtually any show you want to watch.
The devices I mentioned above really come down to a matter of personal preference. They all work in a similar fashion. The starting price point for a unit that streams HD well is around $40 for the three non-Apple options. If you are already an Amazon Prime member or have invested in buying content from Google, Apple, or Amazon, the decision may be more obvious.
It’s tricky to know which of the streaming services is the best choice. They all have shortcomings. They also all have trial periods, so it might be worth giving each one a test to see if you are happy with one more than the others. It seems like PlayStation Vue and YouTube TV will be the most likely to innovate because they aren’t tied to a traditional television provider. AT&T still offers two other traditional TV services in DIRECTV and U-verse. Sling is owned by Dish Network.
Anyone who enters into this space faces the challenges of navigating complicated sports licensing rights, with NFL, MLB, and NBA being the most challenging to navigate. Amazon recently signed a deal to stream 10 Thursday Night Football games for the coming season, so it’s definitely worth watching to see how the content rights continue to evolve on these services.